All You Need Is 'Love': A Conversation With Film and Television Composer Lyle Workman
Lyle Workman discusses his self-surprising music career and how he now departs for unmapped terrain with the new Netflix series, Love.
“I grew up in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood,” says Lyle Workman via phone from somewhere deep in Los Angeles. He’s talking about the score to the new Netflix series Love, but pauses to relate this non-sequitur amid talk of Latin music.
“I have an old cassette tape of me playing music with my friends. I think I must have been 11 or 12 and it’s Jessie and Pedro and Fernando and me, and I have this Hispanic accent,” he says with a characteristically warm laugh. “Because I’m very white with red hair.”
The series is a Judd Apatow creation and explores the subject of, well, love among twentysomethings living in L.A. Apatow approached Workman in early 2015 to see if he’d be interested in scoring the series and the two quickly shot some ideas back and forth about the direction the music should take.
“He had me go down various roads just to try things,” the Bay Area native says. “We had a few different approaches and we’d just set how it felt against some of the scenes and the pictures in the early stages until we found a sound that seemed to work well, that would cover a broad range and underscore the environment that the characters are in.”
That Latin-style score sometimes recalls the off-kilter, lysergic nature of Los Lobos in the '90s on albums such as Kiko and Colossal Head but features more traditional, classic sounds as well. It’s an excellent showcase for Workman’s diverse range of guitar styles. An electric player who can blaze his way through solos the way that Jimi Hendrix or Frank Zappa might have done, he’s also a gifted acoustic player who can evoke a wide range of moods with subtle melodic touches. Although it’s not unheard of to find players who do both well, finding those who can create such distinct voices across the two instruments remains remarkably rare.
“It’s just about expressing the feeling of the music through the guitar,” he says. He’s expressed feelings in a wide variety of settings in a recording career that dates back to the late '80s. Having grown up in San Jose, California, he played clubs in the larger Bay Area before meeting up with a group of Texas transplants who were calling their band Uncle Rainbow. When the avuncular outfit went the way of the 1910 Fruitgum Company, Uncle Rainbow mainstays Brent Bourgeois and Larry Tagg formed a new band which they named after themselves, as though to indicate a merger or a cohesive songwriting partnership, or both.
Workman was invited into the fold, and by 1986 the band had recorded a self-titled debut for the Island imprint. The material was not unlike a masterclass in songwriting: smart, sometimes cynical, lyrics hovered above sophisticated, but accessible, instrumentation. It was the kind of music that Kevin Gilbert would soon be making with his band Toy Matinee and which Todd Rundgren had brought to light more than a decade before. Before long, Bourgeois Tagg was taking to the studio to make its sophomore effort with Rundgren at the controls.
Armed with material that bested the first album, including the minor but should have been major hit “I Don’t Mind At All” (a Bourgeois/Workman co-write), the band delivered Yo-Yo which failed to deliver the band to the big time but did result in some steady work with Rundgren over the next couple of years. The band signed up for the Nearly Human LP and Workman hung around for the 2nd Wind LP.
Before long Workman was trying to launch his solo career and found himself living in a new part of California. “I moved to Los Angeles in ’96 with the idea of going to work and see where I could go in music. And, basically, when you’re open to any kind of possibility good things can happen.”
Studio work was still plentiful enough for good players that he found gigs in the land of commercials, adding guitars to promos for Cadillac and Reebok. He’d also spent some time recording and performing live with Frank Black in that era, first appearing on 1994’s Teenager of the Year. Workman would crop up on Black’s records on and off over the next decade, playing lead guitar on the Pixies man’s unusual songs.
In between, there were the occasional solo turns, including 1996’s Purple Passages, which spotlighted Workman’s predilection for progressive rock and fusion via numbers such as “Lionhearted” and “Exiled in Paradise”. In 2000 he’d continue that trend with Tabula Rasa, an album released around the time he was ready to transition into the world of film.
Workman collaborated with his friend, John O’ Brien, on the 2001 film Made and appeared on soundtracks to The Cat in the Hat and Starsky and Hutch as well as releases by Shakira and Lisa Marie Presley. “I’d always loved music in movies and TV but I’d never really thought of doing it myself even though I’ve always paid attention to it,” he says. “I just found that having that opportunity to do it myself was rewarding. I thought it was great putting music to picture.”
And by 2005 he was tapped to work extensively on the film Kicking and Screaming, which would lead to some of his greatest career highs in a short amount of time. Having done a musical favor for an executive in the Universal world he was coming onto the radar of filmmakers, including Judd Apatow who was about to make his directorial debut with the picture The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Being brought in to work on that film, he says, “was a huge surprise” because he believed that Apatow had “his pick of the litter. I felt like I’d skipped a lot of debts to have that sort of opportunity.”
Several other Apatow-related projects followed, including Superbad, which saw Workman recording with funk masters Bootsy Collins, Clyde Stubblefield, Bernie Worrell, and Jabo Starks. Those sessions, he says, were “the pinnacle” of the work that he’s done to date. “I was a huge fan of all that music growing up and to make music alongside the pioneers of it was really, really fun.”
Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to The Greek followed soon after. By 2014 he was composing for television. He scored the short-lived Bad Teacher for CBS and Weird Loners for Fox. Love was slightly different than the other television work in part because, it wasn’t really for television: it was for Netflix, and for two seasons.
“It’s a new territory for me,” he says, “and I think it’s a new territory for a lot of composers. We don’t really know how, monetarily, it’s going to affect us; how residuals will work and all that. I’m in the dark on all that compared to network. But it’ll be what it’s going to be. There’s nothing I can really do to change that. I just need to focus my energies on the work. We all just want to work. And provide for our families and maybe get a new car every once in a while.”
Music from Love will become available on CD in April. He has recently completed sessions with Ziggy Marley, Michael Buble, and M83, which will roll out over the next year. He also has another solo album in the pipeline. It will be his fourth overall, but before that he’ll have to complete work on the second season of Love first. Recording for that will happen this Summer. “It’s good to have work like that,” he says, “I just try to go where that takes me.”